Pianist Angela Hewitt: Another Full Dance Card in S.F.

March Performances in San Francisco

Angela Hewitt Photo by Lorenzo DoganaIt's been 14 years that Angela Hewitt performed Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier in San Francisco, but I remember it in minute detail: the clarity, focus, and gripping communication of her performance, as reported back then:

On a rainy Sunday morning, with Norwegian bachelor farmers taking all Fort Mason parking on the occasion of Norway Day, one would expect at least some initial difficulties for the audience getting into Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. And yet, as Angela Hewitt played the first few measures in the unexpectedly "well-tempered" Cowell Theater, everything else — rain, parking, the cry of seagulls outside — disappeared, and there was only the perfect world of Bach, superbly played.

Hewitt is returning to the area with a busy schedule: an all-Beethoven recital in San José on March 6, a "concert with conversation" at the S.F. Community Music Center on March 7, and The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, at SFJAZZ on March 9.

The San José concert is for the benefit of the American Beethoven Society, which is helping to build a comprehensive collection of Beethoven materials at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, housed at San Jose State University.

The occasion is the Young Pianist's Beethoven Competition.

Once a dancer, always a dancer Photo by Maria Teresa De LucaHewitt's schedule here reflects her routine timetable year after year: 133 days of performances, of a huge repertoire, jetting between North America and Europe as well as Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Israel, China, Mexico, Turkey, and the former Soviet Union.

How does she manage it? Hewitt contributes her stamina to ballet. She studied piano with her mother and ballet with Nesta Toumine from age 3 on, added violin with Walter Prystawski, and recorder with Wolfgang Grunsky. She performed both as a pianist and dancer until her early 20s when she settled on the piano.

Born in Ottawa, in 1958, as the daughter of a choirmaster from Yorkshire, she has always had dual nationality, eventually making her home in London ("a place I don't see nearly enough").

Her ambition and dedication knows no bounds. Besides large works by Bach, Beethoven, and others, she is preparing for playing and recording all Scarlatti sonatas (I believe there are more than 500) next year.

Hewitt performed the complete Art of Fugue for the first time only last year in her Trasimeno Festival, in the heart of Umbria where she has her other home, playing it all in one performance, "more than 90 minutes of concentrated contrapuntalism, played in the jasmine-scented courtyard of Magione's 15 knights of Malta." The Guardian reported:

As she admitted at the outset, the Art of Fugue, written between 1742 and 1746, was "never a bestseller," perhaps too drily academic to be truly appealing. And, in truth, it is quite a challenge in one sitting. But Hewitt recognised this, and spoke of the need to find the right mood for each of the work's 14 fugues and four canons.

A rare day off, in San Francisco Sometimes she took this desire for variety to extremes, for instance altering the note values in number six to underscore the hauteur of its French style or imbuing number three with such intense mystery that it seemed to be enveloped in a damp fog. At other moments she dashed along the high wire of Bach's wildest chromaticism with an almost reckless disregard.

Hewitt's dedication to Bach and her fascination with The Art of Fugue, which she will perform all over the world during a two-year tour, are absolute:

The composer and critic Wilfrid Mellers put it perfectly when he said that with this work Bach 'plays to God and himself in an empty church.' Few pieces have such simultaneous intimacy and grandeur. By performing and recording it over the next few years, I hope that music-lovers around the world will come to share my state of wonder.

Hewitt recorded the work last October in Berlin for Hyperion. She is now touring with it, using an iPad for the score, turning pages with with a foot-pedal. She says the work's texture is very dense, "it takes a huge amount of patience, and the need to realize the independence of voices. Some fugues are very long, fingering is difficult, the challenge is similar to that of a string player."

And the musical line? "That's where ballet background is especially useful."