Angela Hewitt Plays for Her Mom

2007-09-19 / Ottawa Citizen / Kelly Egan

Pianist Angela Hewitt plays for her mom

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

At the age of three, Angela Hewitt began to take piano lessons from her mother, Marion, and in no time, the child was very, very good.

Young Angela had a gift, the gift of genius. Now she is grown up, all of 49 — a classical music giant, “beyond praise” in the words of one critic. And what a gift she gives to the world.

But she has not forgotten where it all began. A daughter is a daughter for life.

Ms. Hewitt gave a remarkable concert yesterday, an hour of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin on the sixth floor of the Elisabeth Bruyère Health Centre in Lowertown.

In the front row, only steps from the yawning black Steinway, sat her mother, Marion, almost 85, now a resident of Villa Marguerite, housed inside the centre. On her face was a stoic look, but on occasion, her fingers could be seen playing on imaginary keys.

It was not the black-tie audience Ms. Hewitt is accustomed to dazzling.

There were rows of people in wheelchairs, some motorized with head-rests, and the odd patient with a catheter or an oxygen tank, feet in slippers and wedgy orthopedic shoes, hair gone grey and skin turned ashen or darkly spotted with age, pillows and blankets around slumping frames, even a palliative care patient wheeled in on a bed.

And, in the midst of this circle of infirmity, a beautiful sound.

“I was crying, actually,” said Dr. Carol Wiebe — Marion Hewitt’s physician and a classically trained pianist herself — when the concert was over. When she took over Mrs. Hewitt’s care in the spring, she lit a spark that led to yesterday’s concert.

“It’s one of these things, where I don’t think you have to say anything, you just have to look at people’s faces.”

Indeed, there was many a tear being wiped away.

Some of them belonged to Joyce Bolduc, 80, who is partially paralysed from a stroke in 2002. She presented Ms. Hewitt with congratulatory flowers, quoting Bach himself.

“I used to play the piano and I just love Bach,” said Ms. Bolduc. “I was so excited about the concert.”

She likes the harmony, the wonderful melodies, the intricate structure of the German composer.

“I believe if you’re passionate about music and poetry, they are companions for life.”

So true. Before the concert began, Ms. Hewitt spoke about the magical power of music to reach those deep corners of memory.

“When my father was in (a nursing home), I used to go in and play on an electric piano. I remember one man who had Alzheimer’s and hadn’t spoken in two years.

“I started playing a particular hymn and he started singing it, with all the words. And we were all in tears.”

Ms. Hewitt lives in London and Italy, though she keeps an apartment in Ottawa. She is in the midst of a world tour and travels incessantly, leaving for Mexico City today. She was asked about performing for Bruyère residents in the spring and wanted something informal.

“I do think music has the power to heal, to uplift,” she said in a brief interview before the show. “I feel sorry for people who go through life without it. I know, for myself, on the days when I don’t play, I don’t feel physically right.”

She recalled how her mother introduced her to the piano at age three and remained an important guide until age 12 and 13, by which time she was already destined for greatness.

“She taught me such good habits right from the beginning, with an emphasis on musicality. She was a beautiful player. Several of the pieces I’m playing today, in particular the Chopin, were her pieces when she was young.”

Mrs. Hewitt is in declining health, suffering from short-term memory loss.

“But if you ask her what key Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata is in, she’ll say B-flat minor, which is correct.”

Ms. Hewitt, one of two children, lost her father, Godfrey, in September 2002. He spent nearly 50 years as the organist at Christ Church Cathedral and had an international reputation.

She visits her mother several times a year and telephones every day.

“I phone every day, even if I’m in China. It is hard. My parents never made me feel guilty for doing what I do. They knew I had to. They knew I had to be out there, travelling around.

“It’s very hard when I leave, and tearful, but that’s life as well.”

Ms. Hewitt, a child prodigy, is perhaps at the height of her career. In 2006, she was voted artist of the year by Gramophone magazine and in March, she met the Queen at Buckingham Palace when she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

She is probably most famous for performing Bach and, at the moment, is said to have no equal in the world.

“Bach did say his music was written for the glory of God and to refresh our spirits,” she told the audience.

So it was. So it did — piano to patient, daughter to mother.

Contact Kelly Egan at 613-726-5896 or by e-mail,