Finding Bach in a piece of string

2003-05-09 / The Sydney Morning Herald / Clare Morgan

Australian Chamber Orchestra (Australia Tour)

When she was a child, Angela Hewitt’s mother used to keep her amused by giving her pieces of string tied in knots. The toddler would spend hours patiently undoing each one.

The habit was good preparation for her career as a concert pianist, methodically unpicking the complexities of Bach and becoming one of the most acclaimed exponents of his music in the process.

“I’ve always liked unravelling complicated music. That’s just something in my nature,” the quietly spoken Canadian said. “I love the satisfaction you get from playing his music because I think it’s the most difficult thing to play well, and once you’ve managed to sort it out and play successfully, it’s such an achievement.”

Music was always a part of Hewitt’s life – her father was a cathedral organist in Ottawa – and as a child she studied the piano, recorder, violin and classical ballet.

After deciding to concentrate on piano, she graduated with a music degree at 18 and moved to Europe two years later. Winning the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition in 1985 provided performing and recording opportunities.

While tortured piano students might shudder at the thought of fumbling through a complicated Bach score or regard him as an academic and dry composer, Hewitt revels in the passion of his music.

“It’s the terrific joy and vitality in his music that is important to me, as well as its relationship to dance. Bringing out those rhythms and making it come alive is what I like best.”

Her approach has resonated with audiences and critics alike, and she has been described as “nothing less than the pianist who will define Bach performance on the piano for years to come” and “the Bach pianist par excellence of her generation”.

Hewitt admits that such acclaim brings with it responsibility but she never loses sight of the enjoyment of playing and performing. She is a confessed performance junkie who believes in interacting with her audience, developing a rapport with them rather than playing behind some invisible barrier.

“I often talk at my recitals or introduce the works, just to break down that barrier,” she said. “It should be total enjoyment for an audience, and a really good performer will put their audience at ease and make them want to listen and appreciate.”

Hewitt has made it something of a mission to demystify Bach through masterclasses for teachers and students, teaching them how to make the music expressive and joyful. “The problem is, it does take a lot of sorting out before you can get to that stage. It’s like repeating a tongue-twister a hundred times over, at top speed. [Bach] really is something for the brain.”

She is also a champion of taking classical music to the masses, and 10 years ago helped establish the Piano Six program with five other Canadian pianists, playing and teaching in rural and remote communities.

She did her last tour with the program a few weeks ago, performing in the gulf islands of British Columbia. “I was travelling by ferry and sea plane, a different place every day. It was tremendous – we’d get 300 people on an island that had 1000 inhabitants, and they’re so thrilled to hear a live concert of classical music.”

The most important part is playing for schoolchildren, many of whom have never heard classical music. “If you get to children early on when they’re open to different ideas, they’re not afraid of classical music,” she said.