Q&A: Charles Richard-Hamelin riding the keyboard to international stardom

Charles Richard-Hamelin. Photo: Elizabeth Delage

Charles Richard-Hamelin is a Quebec pianist who is a rising star internationally and emerging as one of the most important pianists of his generation. His successful second place finish in the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015 has been followed up with a JUNO nomination for Classical Album of the Year: Solo or Chamber Ensemble for his recording, Beethoven, Enescu & Chopin: Works for Piano (Live) (Analekta Select).

He talked to Artsfile’s Peter Robb in advance of his appearance with the NAC Orchestra on Wednesday where he will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23.

Q. Congratulations on your Juno nomination. This has been a busy and successful few years for you, especially since the Chopin competition. How are you enjoying your success? Is it overwhelming or are you living the dream?
A. The nature of what I do makes it hard for me to take the time to fully appreciate what’s been happening. I’m almost always on the go and working on new recital programs and different concertos. I don’t have the time to sit on my laurels. That being said, I feel really privileged to be able to make a living doing what I love to do the most.

Q. Competitions, like the Chopin gathering, have become a ticket to success in the music world, but much rests on performance at the right time. How do you prepare for them? How stressful are they?
A. Following my second prize at the 2014 Montreal International Musical Competition, I was lucky to be invited to perform many recitals throughout Quebec and Ontario in the months preceding the Chopin Competition. I used those occasions to play my Chopin program, which really helped me during my preparation. The competition was of course nerve-wrecking, but I was in a good place mentally. I just felt so happy to be able to play Chopin in Warsaw in this legendary event. The fact that I had no real expectation to win helped me also get through it. I did however have to try hard to forget that Martha Argerich was listening to me. (Editor’s note: Martha Argerich is an Argentine pianist who won the Chopin competition in 1965. She is considered one of the greats.)

Q. Chopin’s music and technique are unique. First of all, what appeals to you about the great master?
A. The sheer beauty of the music, revealed in his unforgettable melodies and extremely sophisticated harmonies. Also, while being really difficult to play well, his music always feels pianistic.

Q. Do you want to emulate him when you play his music or have you chosen a sympathetic path that reflects who you are as a musician and a performer?
A. It’s hard for me to word my approach, I leave that to the jury members or the critics. All I can say is that I try to communicate as best as I can the love and the respect I have for his music.

Q. Janina Fialkowska was one of your teachers. This is a performer well known to Canadian audiences. How long did you work with her?
A. I saw her on two occasions before the competition: once in Quebec City before I recorded the audition DVD and once in Toronto a few weeks before I left for Warsaw. She was extremely generous and encouraging, giving me really helpful tips on specific pieces and on how to handle the pressure. Following the competition, I also spent some time working with her in Germany. I’m very happy to be playing with her in Italy this summer along with Angela Hewitt and Jon Kimura Parker.

Q. Did she influence your take on Chopin? How? Do you still follow that?
A. Certainly. I admire her sense of freedom and her honesty in her playing. I do think we have similar goals in performance. She was a student of the great Arthur Rubinstein, who I think is still unsurpassed in his mastery of Chopin. I learned immensely from listening to recordings from both of them. Also, my teachers André Laplante and Jean Saulnier were both instrumental in my success in Warsaw.

Q. More generally did she prepare you for the often solitary life of a solo performer?
A. We did chat a bit about that in Germany, but I really think it’s something that you discover and you learn on your own. I love certain aspects of the touring life, but being away from home is always difficult.

Q. Please tell me your take on the Mozart piano concerto? Is it a favourite piece? Is Mozart a favourite composer.
A. I’m very happy to playing Mozart concertos this year, after having played Chopin’s second piano concerto about 30 times in 2016. I still love to play the Chopin, but I’m glad that people are interested to hear me in other repertoire. The purity in Mozart is something I find constantly fascinating. There is never one note that feels out of place. Everything is perfectly balanced all the time. Yet, it feels spontaneous, daring and incredibly inspired. For me, the highlight of his 23rd piano concerto is the slow middle movement in F sharp minor. It is some of the most profound and tragic music ever to be put on paper.

Q. What’s next for you? Concerts where? Another recording (do you have a deal to produce albums?)
A. I just returned from a two-week tour in Japan, and in March I have several concerts in Québec, Ontario and recitals in France and Switzerland. I’m also playing in Edmonton and Calgary in early April. All my upcoming concerts can be found on my website : www.charlesrichardhamelin.com
I love working with the Analekta label and the wonderful sound engineer Carl Talbot. I have several exciting recording projects in the works, none of which I can talk about for the moment sadly.

Charles Richard-Hamelin will perform on Wednesday and Thursday in Southam Hall at 8 p.m. Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca.

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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.