Chamberfest: Angela Hewitt on Bach, Kiwanis Music Festival and uOttawa

Angela Hewitt is back in Ottawa on another leg of her Bach Odyssey. Photo Keith Saunders.

For those who competed in the “Angela Years” of the Ottawa Music Festival this might offer some comfort.

“I remember the times when I didn’t win, times when I messed something up,” she recalled in an interview before her Nov. 4 Chamberfest concert at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre. This is the 10th concert of her now famous Bach Odyssey.

“I remember one piece that I played where I went wrong and I felt awful afterwards. I think it was the Fauré Ballade which has been a big piece in my life and I have recorded it.

“That taught me that I really had to practice more slowly and more carefully and from that point on I made sure that I did.”

Then there was another time that there was a rattle in the piano that distracted her.  “That was another lesson to not let things like that distract you. You have to stay concentrated.”

She seems to have learned her lessons well.

The occasion of her concert of Bach’s English Suites was also a chance to talk about her days in the Kiwanis Festival and in the School of Music at “Ottawa U.”  Both musical institutions in this city are celebrating important anniversaries this year — the festival is marking 75 years and the music school 50 years.

As for the Bach: This is the second program she has done that feature the English Suites. This time she’s playing Nos. 4, 5 and 6. To fill out the program, she’s playing the Sonata in D major which Bach wrote in his early 20s.

“It’s a nice fit with the sixth English Suite. It lightens the mix. There is a fugue that imitates a chicken and a cuckoo. It’s great barnyard stuff and shows the young Bach having fun.”

The English Suites aren’t as well known as other pieces such as Bach’s Partitas, she said.

“But I have really come to love these pieces even more now after studying them and performing them again.

“They have nothing English about them at all. They only get that title because of a copy found in London that belonged to J.C. Bach, the son who lived in England. There is a note that says these were written for the English, but no one knows why.”

The suites are actually very French in character, she said, with opening movements that are very orchestral and virtuosic.

“They demand a lot of the player. They were also written when Bach was at the peak of his virtuosity as a soloist when he had a famous competition at Versailles with Louis Marchand who was the organist to Louis XIV.

The two men apparently had harpsichord competition one evening and next night were to compete on the organ.

“During the night Marchand left town. He knew what he was up against.”

As proof, she has learned how to handle a distraction, Hewitt mentioned a recent concert in Nottingham, England. In one of the pieces performed there was a jig with a hunting scene.

“All of a sudden I saw this commotion in front row and I looked over and there was a big Labrador (seeing eye) dog. He had got up and was wagging his tail furiously to the music. He seemed to be very happy, listening to the jig.”

The owner calmed him down, but Hewitt’s playing had unleashed the hound.

“Don’t tell me Bach is hard to sit through if a dog can do it,” she added.

Hewitt says she can see the finish line of her Odyssey. The final concert will be June 2, 2020 in Wigmore Hall. She’ll play her last concerts in Ottawa next spring.

“Doing all this Bach is hard on arms and shoulders. I’ll be taking three months off when the Odyssey ends next summer. Bach is very digital and it never stops. People say ‘You make it look so easy’ but the intensity that I put into it and the concentration is huge.”

Coming home to Ottawa and her apartment here is actually a return to her past. It’s where the scrapbooks her mother prepared to chronicle her career are kept today. She calls it the Angela Hewitt Museum.

Front and centre are fondly remembered times at the Ottawa Music Festival (known as the Kiwanis Music Festival since 1985) and at uOttawa.

As for the Angela Years:

“Whenever I walked into the room, people’s hearts sank,” she said with a chuckle. “So many people have come up to me and said ‘I played against you but I never had a chance,’ but I hope I have been forgiven.

“I have so many memories and not just of playing the piano.” She competed on recorder and in voice categories.

Then there was the family class when there was always a battle between the Huggetts and the Hewitts and the Hassells. The name had to begin with an H, it seems, she recalled.

The festival was always something to look forward to, she said.

“I remember it being in the spring when the weather was getting nice and we were able get photos taken outside. I associate it very much with the spring in my mind.

“I think there was a great sense of camaraderie.” She played with many people who went on to careers in music, including, she recalled, Nicole Presentey.

“I’m so glad they have been able to keep the festival going because it is so easy to let that kind of thing go. It gives a platform for young musicians to work towards.

“And a lot do go on to a career like Silvie and Bryan Cheng but it’s for all the others too. It builds a feeling of accomplishment; it builds you as a person. It’s exactly what OrKidstra does.”

Each year, at Kiwanis, she gives a senior scholarship in memory of her mother. It’s called the Marion Hewitt Memorial Scholarship.

As she was taking part in the festival, Hewitt was preparing for a career as a concert pianist. A key stop on that road was the opening of the School of Music at uOttawa in 1969.

“I went there because Jean-Paul Sévilla  was there. Before becoming a student I went to a summer course in Aix-en-Provence that was organized by uOttawa. Jean-Paul did that every year for years. It was marvellous. I spent six weeks there. He taught us every day and we did a lot of sight-seeing. I learned about French food and art.

“The first year I did that was 1973. I celebrated my 15th birthday there.”

When she came home to Ottawa from France, she reflected on her reality.

“I had been making a trip to Toronto every second Monday to study which was getting tiring. I had done that since age six and I thought Ottawa had this wonderful pianist in town and I needed to study with him.”

So she went to uOttawa as a special student. In her last year at Glebe Collegiate, she was allowed to take first year piano. She would finish her four years in three and graduated at age 18.

“I remember the wonderful training that Jean-Paul gave us which was really Paris Conservatory training. We were so lucky to have him here. (She reflected on Facebook recently what he meant to her on the occasion of the school’s 25th anniversary).

“There were other wonderful professors such as Evelyn Greenberg who taught piano accompaniment. I learned how to accompany singers and pay attention to the text. We had Steven Gellman for musical form. He had studied with Oliver Messiaen. Cynthia Millman Floyd taught piano pedagogy.”

Hewitt studied languages including her beloved French. And she was “sort of” the  official accompanist for woodwinds at the school.

All of this work still informs the music she plays to this day.

If the school hadn’t opened in 1969, Hewitt says she probably would have gone to Toronto to study. She was familiar with that city having studied with Myrtle Guerrero,  the widow of Glenn Gould’s teacher, Alberto Guerrero.

“I’m glad (the school) did open. It allowed me to stay at home. I wouldn’t have liked to have to leave at a young age. I don’t believe in sending kids away early to school.” She left to make Paris, France her base of operations at age 20.

She said became aware of Sévilla when she noticed that his students had improved after studying with him.

“He was a real performer. He could sit down and play the complete works of Ravel and Faure and Schumann like nobody else. He was so alive.

“He wasn’t a teacher who just taught the notes on the page. He gave a cultural education. He taught us about opera and we’d have soirees and listen to an opera and he would serve food he had cooked himself. Not many teachers would give so much of themselves.”

She often reflects on those days, she says, especially when she returns to her Ottawa home. It’s all the more important in this anniversary year. Recently the School of Music presented an award for distinguished alumni to opera singer Joyce El-Khoury. The new prize bears Hewitt’s name. It matters.

“It’s lovely to come back here to Ottawa and I love my place here. It’s important.”

Chamberfest presents Angela Hewitt’s Bach Odyssey
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Nov. 4 at 7:30 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.