Hewitt’s Umbria a Big Hit

2007-01-27 / Toronto Star / William Littler

MAGIONE, ITALY–Although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Mozart Festival formally comes to an end tomorrow afternoon in the George Weston Recital Hall, it extends informally to Feb. 22 and 24, when Angela Hewitt plays the Piano Concerto No. 27, K 595 under Gunther Herbig’s direction in Roy Thomson Hall.

No stranger to the hall, the Ottawa-born pianist won the 1985 International Bach Piano Competition from its stage, which led in turn to a debut album on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label and the confirmation of her status as one of the leading Bach interpreters of her generation.

In 2005 she completed an 11-year, 18-CD project to record all the major keyboard works of Bach for Britain’s Hyperion label, a project described by The Sunday Times of London as “one of the record glories of our age.”
Another leading English newspaper, The Guardian, even called her “the pre-eminent Bach pianist of our time.”

Although Bach retains a core position in her repertoire – during the
2007-08 season she plans to tour the world performing the complete Well-Tempered Clavier – one of the Toronto Symphony’s favourite Mozart interpreters resists being pigeonholed and with a discography stretching from Couperin to Messiaen, she has effectively avoided the dangers of over-specialization.

“When I started the Bach project for Hyperion in ’94 I did have to let go of chamber music for awhile,” she admitted, while munching her way through an afternoon salad at her summer home in Italy. “But with the end of the Bach project in sight it was time to do something else and that is where the Trasimeno Music Festival came in.”

The festival takes its name from a beautiful lake in the Umbrian region between Florence and Rome. The windows of Hewitt’s 3 1/2-year-old summer home offer a commanding view of its placid waters.

“I found the land for my house on the Internet from my winter home in London,” she explained. “I came here two days later on a whim. Being a Canadian I wanted to see water. And once I saw the view I didn’t look at another property in Italy.

“My builders could not understand this curious Canadian lady who played the piano, but when the house was finished in August 2003 they wound up giving me a party.

“Guglielmo (Beneduce, her festival’s director of operations) told me I learned Italian in eight days. It actually took longer, but now I can even do interviews on the radio. The people of Umbria have been wonderfully welcoming.”

Those people little realized that they were welcoming not just a pianist from abroad, looking for a warm weather retreat, but a new music festival.

“I discovered there was a castle in the area (in nearby Magione) owned by the Knights of Malta and experienced the fine acoustics when I saw a theatre production there in 2004. So we went to the Grand Master, who is a Scot, by the way, and secured permission to mount a week-long music festival in 2005.”

Miraculously put together in a matter of months, through the help of an all-Italian local committee (Hewitt being the only foreigner), the festival proved to be such a success that its Canadian artistic director immediately started planning a successor.

“I wanted to work with artists of my own choosing,” she recalled. “They came from six countries in 2006 and we had tour groups coming to hear them from both England and Japan.”

Most of the festival concerts have taken place in the courtyard of Castello di Magione, sheltered by walls dating back to the 12th century.

Originally designed to house pilgrims bound for Rome or Jerusalem, the Castello today accommodates not only the Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, who likes to spend his Septembers there, but a famous wine cellar. Predictably, wine and music are now making compati ble companions within its stone walls.

I spent three pleasurable evenings within those walls in what turned out to be a surprisingly welcoming acoustical environment, listening to concerts featuring the Jerusalem String Quartet, Spanish clarinettist Joan Enric Lluna, Russian violinist Mikhail Ovrutsky and German soprano Lydia Teuscher, in addition to Hewitt herself.

The lady from Ottawa appeared in all six of the 2006 concerts and virtually every aspect of the festival bore her tasteful musical signature.

It was and is an intimate festival, as befits chamber music, with the courtyard seating fewer than 300. “My London guests say it’s like Wigmore Hall without the roof,” Hewitt laughs.

With gala dinners and guided tours of the region included, patrons often spend the entire week with Trasimeno, sometimes staying in the nearby historic hill town of Perugia and arriving at the concerts by special bus.

“It’s ideal for me,” says its founder. “The castle is a few minutes’
drive from my house so I can sleep in my own bed. I publicize the festival wherever I give concerts and Fazioli provides us with two pianos. The word is spreading.”

Hewitt has become an unofficial champion of the Italian-made piano, even having arranged for three Faziolis to be brought to the stage of Roy Thomson Hall for her last Toronto Symphony Orchestra appearance.

“I’m the one taking the financial risk for the festival,” she admits candidly. “But we have been just about breaking even. The artists do not earn a big fee. They have to want to come. My reward comes from being able to play with them.

“I’m hoping to bring more Canadians in the years ahead but I’d like to keep the festival restricted to a week. That’s about all I can manage.”

Whether Angela Hewitt can resist the temptation to expand remains an open question. For now, she is basking in the success of one of Italy’s most charming new music festivals, an enterprise that owes its very existence to the discovery of a piece of Umbrian real estate on the Internet.