Nicolas Namoradze: Sound explorer

Nicolas Namoradze. Photo: Nathan Elson

Nicolas Namoradze thinks deeply about his chosen career as a piano soloist and a composer.

Before he entered the 2018 Honens competition, he had spent some four years giving himself time to prepare for the spotlight. When he won, he says he was ready to step onto wider stages including in Ottawa. Namoradze will perform here on March 5 at Southminster Church, part of Roland Graham’s Master Piano Recital Series.

He told ARTSFILE from Berlin, Germany, that he had done competitions as a teenager in Europe and had enjoyed the experience, “but I felt that I wanted to give myself more time before putting myself out in the limelight. I felt I needed more time to expand my repertoire and to find out who I am as an artist. This meant finding what I wanted to play and how to play it before stepping out into the fray.”

This hiatus, for sake of a better word, meant he stepped away from active concertizing and from competing. It afforded an important space. “That’s when I started composing seriously again.”

When he was returned to performance, he decided to go for the biggest prize available. The Honens International Piano Competition is held every three years in Calgary. The winner gets $100,000 CDN and a comprehensive, three-year Artist Development Program, which includes artistic and career guidance and support, worldwide representation, debut recitals in major markets, residencies at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, production of professional recordings released globally on the Honens, Steinway and Hyperion labels, as well as coaching and mentorship.

Namoradze was aiming high, but that gamble has paid off big time with his victory.

“Now I don’t have to do competitions any more. One tends not to compete further when one wins a prize like this. You move on to climb different mountains.

“I think competitions are stepping stones to the career one wants to have. It’s not like tennis where the competitions are the end goal.”

At 27, he’s developed a mature approach.

“I wanted to define myself. It’s not like I went backpacking in India to look for the meaning of life, but, I guess, in a metaphorical sense it was a journey. I certainly wanted to make sure when and if I did get a major career I’d have enough repertoire to keep me going.

“It is is an easy and dangerous pitfall — getting out there too soon and not having enough pieces in your hands. Later on one doesn’t have much time to learn pieces as one does when one is not performing so actively.

Namoradze has an interest exploring rarer or less discovered parts of the piano repertoire. He also has an interest in contemporary music. This means there are composers he has gravitated towards.

“In conservatories and competitions, one has to play a bit of everything. While I have always had a wide range of repertoire, there were things I felt more strongly about.”

For example, he is recording the music of the 20th century British composer Edwin York Bowen on his debut disc for Hyperion.

“It is comforting to play pieces well loved by audiences and well loved by performers but I always have felt gratification when playing lesser known pieces in a concert.”

Namoradze likes to surprise audiences and other musicians with this lesser known work.

“And if they enjoy it, that’s a really wonderful feeling. There is a lot of great music out there that isn’t played. I don’t know why I have gravitated to this stuff but I do feel I want to be an advocate for music that I feel strongly about that does not get heard that often.’

He said that that is something that Hyperion is interested in as well.

“So when we joined forces it seemed natural it would be something we would collaborate on.”

He did test drive 12 studies by York Bowen in his debut at Wigmore Hall recently.

“The recording I am making is the first time they will be recorded. The response in the concert was astonishing. People were gobsmacked by the strength of the music, how well it communicates to the audience, how brilliant the piano writing is and how enjoyable it is as a half-hour set of music.”

He said people were scratching their heads “as to why on earth this was the first time they were hearing this music. That is very gratifying.”

Namoradze has taught the history of music in the past and that experience has informed  and guided his approach to repertoire.

“It made me look at the passage of time in a particular way. This broader overview has made me interested in this kind of musical archeology.

Other music by York Bowen has been recorded by the British piano star Stephen Hough, also on Hyperion. That was an important moment, Namoradze said, of putting the composer on the map.

One thing in particular that Namoradze likes about York Bowen’s music is its sense of humour.

“There is a comedic element in music and that does get lost. Sometimes people say about my own etudes that there is an underlying sense of humour in them. It is something that as a composer I have gravitated toward.”

He believes that humour in the repertoire tends to be downplayed “in the museum culture we associate with classical music.”

But “thinking of a piece of music as funny doesn’t mean we are taking it down from a pedestal that it deserves to be on. Instead it is to recognize a more multifaceted nature of the music.”

Music communicates a range of emotions, of course, and unfortunately, “we tend to associate the humorous with the base, the vulgar or the rude. We consider classical music to be the ultimate in refinement and the highest level of human expression.”

But that thinking tends to relegate humour to the lower rungs of the ladder, he added.

“I think classical music is reflective of the entire human experience, of the humorous and the grotesque. I don’t think we should overly prettify the image of the music. That just makes it more detached from the human experience.”

In his Wigmore concert, he said, one of the nice moments happened at the end of one of Bowen’s etudes. It’s cheeky and the audience responded by laughing out loud.

“That was an affirmation of the power music has.”

Namoradze was born in Tblisi, Georgia but his family soon moved to Hungary where he grew up. He did his undergrad in Europe and went to The Juilliard School for post-graduate studies with the formidable pianist Emanuel Ax and the composer John Corigliano.

It was at Juilliard where Namoradze rediscovered composition in a serious way. He had done some as a young artist.

“As soon as I started playing I was composing. It seemed like the most natural thing that anyone who played should compose. Composition fell by the wayside in my teenage years. I got it into my head that I should practice as much as I could, so I didn’t write.”

Another thing he delved into at Juilliard was electronic music. That investigation has now become part of his composition practice.

“Perhaps the biggest effect my study of electronic music has had is the expansion of my understanding of sound. It has made me think more creatively and much more abstractly about tonal possibilities.

“With electronic music, one doesn’t begin with the sound of a particular instrument. One really has to imagine, very abstractly, a kind of sound one wants in one’s head and then find it through a synthesizer.”

This has advanced the development of his “inner ear. As a pianist I imagine the sound I want to hear. I imagine what it is I want and work towards it when I practice rather than just accept the sound the instrument produces.”

In Ottawa, Namoradze will perform pieces by Alexander Scriabin and J.S. Bach, along with six of his own etudes.

He plays his own work regularly in concerts.

“I want to present myself as a composer but I also want to create interesting combinations and juxtapositions.

“I do pair my etudes with etudes by Scriabin. My etudes are influenced by Scriabin.

“Scriabin’s ouevre is an example of a very gradual, steady transformation, I think unlike any other. He started with a very Chopinesque, post-Chopinesque style.

“Very slowly, step by step, he worked his way to a style which abandons tonality and traditional harmonic centres. He actually created his own approach to atonality independent of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School.

“I find his late pieces so intoxicating. The music speaks to me and influences the way I approach the instrument. I like to experiment with sound and colour and delve into the quiet ranges of the keyboard.”

In fact, he said, he’s known as something of a pianissimist now. That means the audience in Southminster will have to listen carefully.

“I have a tendency to want to draw the audience in by creating a space with intensity and concentrated sound along with quiet dynamics. I am known for this.

“I actually selected the piano I used at Honens for its ability to produce the best pianissimo. It was only thing I really cared about. You can play loud on any instrument but very few are well-regulated enough that you produce perfect pianissimi.”

Scriabin, too, was a sound explorer, one of the greatest of all time, he said.

Master Piano Recital Series presents Nicolas Namoradze
Where: Southminster Church
When: March 5 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.